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Richard Jordan: Is numeric grading the right way to judge arts funding?

Photo: Kanchana_Koyjai/Shutterstock
Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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In the past two weeks,  Arts Council England has announced that it is moving forward with its numeric assessment grading overhaul of NPO companies, offering a £2.7 million pound contract for a company to administrate its assessment process.

This is the biggest contract that the ACE has ever put out to tender and, while voices within the industry expressed concerns about a standardised system to measure quality during the pilot scheme, ACE has said that it has seen enough positive responses from the sector to move it forward.

But can a numeric grading system for the arts industry ever succeed?

ACE is certain it can. Its commitment to this and considerable investment would not have come about without a careful study into the pros and cons of such a process.

Yet I am sceptical that the arts, being one of the most subjective of all industries, can ever benefit from the measure of its quality being led by a set of numbers.

This clinical system takes the emotion out of the process. I respect the fact that the arts are a business and must be operated as such. Numeric grading has long been a popular choice of the corporate sector, but for the creative industries its application is far more challenging.

There's a danger that numeric grading, particularly with respect to box office returns, will lead to a culture of risk-aversion in theatre; the assessment process can't recognise the intricacies of theatremaking.

The reporting of this new scheme has not fully explained whether written assessment will continue as the dominant component. ACE has said that it plans to merge this new grading scheme with the one it created six years ago – in which 150 individuals working in the arts industry were recruited as accessors. This has run reasonably successfully, posing the question: if it is still to remain a part of the process, why has ACE felt it necessary to offer considerable expenditure in creating another stage to its assessment?

Obviously, there's much to be explained and, understandably, many funded companies will be apprehensive and anxious. Indeed, with the sums of money involved, if this new grading system should prove misjudged, it will shoot through the very heart of creativity in this country.

In many respects, the sums that ACE is committing seem at odds with imminent arts cuts. It's possible, too, that the numeric model will detract from the sort of detailed information that might have spared a low-scoring yet worthy company from the cull.

ACE has said that the numeric assessment will be made through a series of detailed questions. But these will need to be as broad as they are deep, with a fluidity that covers the entire artistic spectrum. Thereafter, a computer will process the data and generate its assumed grading. It will also need multiple people to clarify any assumptions.

I worry that numeric grading will cause quick judgements to be made. I am confident that ACE will not allow this model to replace reasoned debate, especially as numbers on a page cannot represent people's livelihoods or the dedication they have made to their own artistic journey and craft.

Numeric grading could be seen as the funding equivalent to star ratings on reviews. The eye is drawn quickly to the headline number, rather than the nuanced copy it summarises.

Applying a numeric grading system to theatre without focus on a comprehensive written analysis would be inherently dangerous, especially as the arts are constantly growing and changing. Artists need to be empowered, supported and have the courage to fail; great art demands those things.

The success of the new system can only be judged in practice. But it is important that it succeeds and serves ACE and the industry alike. But a part of me can't help think how far £2.7 million would go towards supporting theatres, companies and organisations.

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